Killing to Survive

I've watched far too many episodes of "Breaking Bad" in the last few weeks, and just about my only defense is that the show does provide lots of food for thought about ethics.  Spoiler alert!  If you're trying to catch up before the season finale on Sunday, don't read this post.

Lots of people get killed in the show, and many of the killings are done for purposes of self-preservation.  The killings make it clear that self-preservation is one thing, self-defense another.  You might plausibly say killing in self-defense is always justifiable, but clearly killing to preserve yourself is very often wrong. Take for example Todd killing the boy on the bike. It was a matter of self-preservation, because the boy had witnessed the train heist, but not self-defense (the boy was not on the attack), and the killing was obviously very wrong.  When Walt poisons Brock, nearly killing him, that was self-preservation (he did it to get Jesse to help him find the evil, murderous Gus), not self-defense (the boy was not on the attack).  When Walt watches Jane die, his rationale had to do with self preservation, but she was not attacking him--it was not self-defense.  We may have some degree of sympathy for a person who kills for purposes of self-preservation, but we certainly don't excuse them in the way we do when people kill in self-defense.

OK, strange segue:  when it comes to killing animals, we don't make this sharp distinction between self-preservation and self-defense.  I can kill an animal in self-defense: if a bear attacks me, I can attack the bear to protect myself.  But it's also true, we think, that a perfectly innocent rabbit could be killed, if I were lost in the woods and had to kill to survive.   We can't kill innocent, non-attacking humans for purposes of self-preservation, but we can kill innocent, non-attacking animals for purposes of self-preservation. Surely we can.  That means that if animals have rights at all, they are not as robust as human rights.  They are overridden in cases of self-defense and self-preservation, whereas human rights are overridden only in cases of self-defense (focusing just on those two circumstances).

The interesting thing is that even staunch defenders of animal rights often grant the self-preservation exception, and I'm sure they don't grant it across the board, excusing every killing for self-preservation in a drama like "Breaking Bad."  Without putting it this way, they actually agree that animal rights are less robust than human rights. Case in point:  in the book Zoopolis, Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka say it is permissible for us to kill animals when it is necessary for survival, though they think all animals have basic rights.  They don't explain this in terms of animal rights being particularly overridable, but instead say people struggling to survive aren't in the "circumstances of justice" where rights must govern our decisions.  But I very much doubt they think the struggle to survive always puts us outside the "circumstances of justice".  They believe starving Eskimos are not in the "circumstances of justice" with respect to seals, but I doubt they'd say Walter White wasn't in the "circumstances of justice" with respect to Brock and Jane.  Survival motives give us a prerogative to dispatch animals for self-preservation, and less of a prerogative to dispatch humans for self-preservation -- in fact no prerogative at all.

So--why are animal rights more overridable? What's that really all about?  I offer an answer in my book Animalkind, but truth is, I'm still thinking about.  I find it a very hard question.


Mini-problems: The case of the lost notebook

I am fond of using mini-problems in ethics classes--tiny little every day questions of not very great significance.  The point of discussing them is that they don't arouse any distracting emotionality, and people don't "identify" with particular solutions (like they do when it comes to matters like abortion and gay marriage).  So you can have a dispassionate, exploratory discussion.  What's more, I think it's actually good for us to take such problems seriously, when they come up in real life. After all, it's not every day that a really serious, earth-shattering moral problem lands in our laps.  We need to prepare for the day when doing the right thing is going to matter a lot. 

So much for the preamble.  Here's a mini-problem I ran into recently--  My daughter desperately needed a sketchbook to do a quick assignment for her art class.  She'd been counting on using last year's sketchbook, but couldn't find it.  It was 9:30 pm, and we thought Target was our best bet, but it closed at 10.  We raced to Target and found one sketchbook in the art supplies section, but it looked a bit damaged.  We could find no other, so took it to the cash register. The cashier could find no price-tag, so sold it to us for a dollar.  When we got home, my daughter discovered the notebook had notes on the first few pages. It was actually someone's lost notebook, not Target merchandise.   If she returned it the next day, she'd have nothing to bring to art class, and she was sure she'd be penalized. If she kept it, the student would never recover his lost notebook. There was no phone number in the book, but there was a name.  What would have been the right thing to do?


Parenthood's End

What's the job description of a parent?  I've been pondering an answer defended by William Irvine in the book Doing Right by ChildrenThe idea is that adults own themselves, but are essentially incapacitated during the years of childhood, so need parents to serve as their stewards.  In the future adult child's absence, the parent has to make various decisions, just as a land steward would, in the absence of a property owner.  A land steward will try to figure out what the landowner would want, and similarly we should parent as the future adult child would want.  (You have to picture a property owner who's lost in the Himalayas or traveling in space, to make the analogy even begin to work, because stewards can normally talk to landowners, and parents can't communicate with their future children.) 

Now, there's an obvious problem here. While the steward is substituting for a landowner out there somewhere, an owner with fully formed preferences with respect to his land, the adult child lies in the future, and what that individual prefers depends on how the immature child is raised.  If you raise your child with a lot of focus on education, then your future adult child might very well be trying to get into law school, and she will certainly prefer that you make her 8-year-old self do her homework.  Parental stewardship is self-validating in this funny, circular sort of a way. 

To get around that problem, Irvine says steward-parents "must rely on a 'reasonable-man standard' in their parenting: They should raise their child in such a way that he would, if he were a reasonable man with fairly typical values, be satisfied with their efforts. They should raise him 'conservatively' ..." Why is this any better than raising a child with atypical values?  The idea seems to be that children raised with typical values will wind up with more freedom as adults.  Parents should operate so that when a child "'comes back' at age eighteen, he will find not that all the important decisions about his future have been made for him, but that he has before him a nice range of choices about what he can do with the rest of his life."  The adult child who is raised conservatively, with typical values, will be, as it were, a blank slate, all ready to write on himself.  And that's what your future adult child would want ....

Upshot (I guess):  vegans ought to feed their children an omnivore's diet.  Political activists ought to leave their children at home, instead of taking them to rallies. Hardcore backpackers shouldn't bring their kids on trips.  If you care about consummate skill in classical music, fine, but you shouldn't demand musical excellence from your children.

Irvine seems to think adults will be able to choose these extremes for themselves, upon majority, if they're raised to be middle-of-the-road 18 year olds, but kids raised with atypical values will become adults with less freedom.  I doubt this.  However you are raised, by age 18 various roads will be closed.  In fact, the atypical roads will be especially closed, as it takes planning to be able to go down them.  You cannot choose a classical music career, for example, if your parents didn't impose musical discipline on you, as a child.  You won't have a choice among the best colleges, if you weren't raised with unusual emphasis on education.  You're at least less likely to care a lot about political activism or philanthropy, if you didn't grow up focusing on political activism or philanthropy.   A child raised with typical values isn't going to have more freedom as an adult.

So, typical values, bah!  Is there any better way to raise children according to the preferences of their future adult selves?  The whole idea strikes me as hopeless, because of the circularity problem.  Granted, all adults do want certain things, and we should strive to raise children who have access to them (health, love, self-respect, etc.), but we're kidding ourselves if we think we're the servants of future adults.  No--we're forming those adults, so we can't possibly be their servants.